Purest Sons—Opening Up the Textbook

Opening Up the Textbook: “Purest Sons”

(20-40 minutes for the primary activity; 40-60 minutes with the extension)

“Opening Up the Textbook” lessons allow students to see how the story in the Basic Plan is (or isn’t) talked about in their textbooks and to consider the implications of the dominant narrative. This lesson would be especially effective after the Timelining to Understand activity.


This activity asks students to discuss the institution of slavery. Please be sure to remind students of the respect and rigor required to study this history. This is hard history, but it is necessary history to study.


  • Compare and contrast the story that’s told in “Purest Sons” (regarding the relationship between Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Agrippa Hull, Thomas Jefferson, and America’s “founding”) with the story that’s told in history textbooks.
  • Compare the central historical arguments in secondary works with regards to a specific topic.
  • Analyze and draw connections between historical/political trends and events.
  • Determine the value of sources by evaluating their relevance and intended use.


Before the lesson:

Find in your textbook any mention of Kosciuszko, Hull, and Jefferson. (It is likely that the first two are not mentioned, while the last is.) If there are no mentions of Kosciuszko and Hull, find the places where it would make the most sense for them to be addressed, and bookmark those sections for students to read.

If you do not use a class textbook, you can refer to any of the following sections from a free open-source textbook of American history. The line of inquiry that this lesson designs is based on the following sections; however, most questions can easily be adapted to traditional US history textbooks that discuss the American Revolution.

Launch the lesson:

  • If you have already watched the video, ask students: … This can be done as a quick write, a turn-and-talk, a virtual poll, or a whole class discussion. Make sure to record a list of answers that students can refer back to.
  • If you have not yet watched the video and are planning to use this as a launch to the unit, complete the steps under “Read the Textbook”, then watch the video and follow “The Basic Plan.” Complete the “Launch when you return here, after “The Basic Plan.”

Open the Textbook:

Choose one of the following (or a variation or combination).

  • [If your textbook includes Kosciuszko, Hull, and Jefferson]
    • Ask students to use their research literacy skills to find where in the textbook Kosciuszko, Hull, and Jefferson may appear.
    • Direct students to the sections you have already bookmarked.
  • [If your textbook does not include Kosciuszko, Hull, and Jefferson]
    • Tell students that the story in “Purest Sons” is not a part of their textbook and that we will discuss that choice at the end of the class, then direct them to the resources above.

Read the textbook passage(s):

As students read, they should note the following questions. They can write responses individually, discuss in pairs of small groups, or discuss after reading as a class.

  • Whose experiences are included in the sections about Patriots, soldiers, and revolutionaries? Whose experiences are excluded?
  • How is Thomas Jefferson characterized in the textbook sections? Consider what details the textbook sections include and omit about Jefferson.
    • If needed, point students to the sections that focus on his talents as a writer, his desire to blame King George for the slave trade, and his words “All men are created equal.” What is the focus of these sections? What key details are omitted about Jefferson? Where does the textbook get this information about Jefferson, particularly about his beliefs? Does it cite its sources?
  • How is the Declaration of Independence portrayed in the textbook sections? Consider what details the textbook sections include and omit about this document.
    • If needed, point students to the sections that describe the words of the Declaration, and omit the realities “on the ground” regarding liberty, equality, and justice in the colonies. Whose perspectives are ignored or minimized in this discussion?
  • How does the textbook treat the changes and continuities in slavery before and after the Revolution? What changes / continuities does it focus on, and what changes / continuities does it ignore? Who does it hold responsible, if anyone, for the changes / continuities?
    • If needed, point students to the sections that choose to focus on emancipation and the development of anti-slavery societies. Why might the textbook massively focus on the (in reality, small) “positive effects” of the Revolution on slavery, instead of focusing on the overwhelming negative effects, such as the way the Founding Fathers essentially wrote slavery into the law of the land? Does the textbook present enough facts to defend this interpretation?

Analyze the textbook’s choices:

Present the following questions to students. Ask them to write their responses individually or to discuss them in pairs, small groups, or as a class.

  • What tone does the textbook take on when describing Jefferson, his values, and his outlook on slavery?
    • If needed, point students to the section where it says: “Jefferson watched painfully as the other delegates tweaked his prose. Jefferson had wanted to include a passage blaming the king for the slave trade, for example, but the southern delegates insisted upon its removal”. What is the tone of this line? What does it imply about Jefferson versus the other founders? Does it hold him accountable to the fact that he was an enslaver?
  • How radical of a document is the Declaration seen to be, by the author of the textbook?
    • If needed, point students to the section where it says: “When the Declaration was written, this was a radical statement… While the signers of the Declaration thought of ‘the people’ more narrowly than we do today, they articulated principles that are still vital markers of American ideals. And while the Declaration did not initially lead to equality for all, it did provide an inspiring start on working toward equality.” What do these lines imply about the Declaration and its worthiness as a founding document of America? What is the tone?
  • What story of slavery does the author of the textbook shape, before and after the Revolution? What tone is used to describe the continuities and changes in slavery, and what are the implications of this tone?
    • If needed, point students to the sections that seem to normalize slavery, or see the emancipation of a few enslaved people during the revolution as “a good enough start”. What structure choices does the author make, to write this story about slavery?
  • Overall, what story is told about the American Revolution and those who “founded” the United States, including Thomas Jefferson? What rhetorical moves does the author of the textbook make, in order to reinforce this story?

Rewrite the textbook:

Before asking students to rewrite the textbook, have them discuss the following questions in pairs, small groups, or as a class.

  • How would a reader’s understanding of the Revolution change if textbooks included the story about Kosciuszko’s relationship with Hull and Jefferson?
  • Why do you think most textbooks exclude this story?
  • What questions should readers ask before reading secondary sources, such as history textbooks? What other types of sources might best supplement a textbook, so that the reader has a more accurate and complete understanding of the past?
  • What might textbooks be useful for, even if they present inaccurate, incomplete accounts of the past?

Ask students to select one section [either of their own textbook or any of the resources provided above] to revise, in order to make it more accurate and complete. This could mean including any of the following: the story of Kosciuszko and Hull’s participation in the Revolutionary War, Kosciuszko and Hull’s friendship, Kosciuszko’s 1798 will and his advocacy, Kosciuszko and Jefferson’s relationship, and Jefferson’s decision to not execute Kosciuszko’s will. Students can also choose to focus more on the broader hypocrisies and contradictions of America’s founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, and on the way slavery was strengthened as a result of the Revolution.

You can encourage students to use knowledge from other resources in this module, if they have completed them already.

As students rewrite their sections, ask them to highlight or underline changes they make to the text. Then, beneath the revisions, ask them to write a few sentences explaining their choices.